"The Secret Word," which had its world premiere Saturday night at La Maison Francaise, is a combination of music, poetry and dance that has high ambitions. Composed by Marilyn Boyd DeReggi and inspired by a long narrative poem of the same name by the Sufi religious leader Hazrat Pir Molana Salaheddin Ali Nader Shah Angha, it is intended to represent and assist the process by which "the world community begins to rid itself of its innate isolationism and to seek a broader understanding of the collective heritage."
As a step in that direction, Saturday night's performance ended with the audience chanting in unison "La-elaha-ella-Allah" ("There is no god but Allah"), a Sufi variant of the familiar Islamic slogan, heard most often in Arabic. One is tempted to look for irony in this gesture, because that formula has not always been calculated to promote intercultural understanding, but irony was one element that seemed absent from "The Secret Word" -- as idealistic a work of art as we are likely to see in Washington for some time.
It was uneven and a bit longer than it needed to be (two hours without an intermission), but "The Secret Word," billed as an "electroacoustic dance opera," had many moments of great power and breathtaking beauty. Much of the power was in the poetry, which came in various forms. In Part 1, which represents the experience of the fetus in the womb, the soundtrack played actual womb noises, recorded by an obstetrician, while a disembodied voice spoke: "You have no past, no future. Who are you? ... A captive without desire for freedom." In Part 2, "Loss of Innocence," three women dancers mimed giving birth, the death of two children and a struggle for possession of the third that results in its death, while offstage voices (first fragmentary and confused but gradually becoming clear) spoke of atrocities: "Twenty million a day go hungry"; "I feel like I am at the bottom of a giant sewer"; "How much does it cost to get a man killed?"
The final section, "Unity Through Diversity," featured dancers from Senegal, Spain, India, Japan and the United States, first dancing solo in their ethnic traditions and then in an ensemble that represented intercultural harmony. A lot of the dancing was excellent, with particularly memorable performances by Shizumi, Djibril Traore and Amuradha Nehru. Musically, outstanding work was done by Leo Kupper on santur (a Persian ancestor of our hammer dulcimer) and Mike Wingo on percussion.